Monday, June 11, 2007

Vaccine Court Starts Hearing Autism Case, and Other News Briefs

The United States Court of Federal Claims opened its first test case into the allegation that childhood vaccines such as measles-mumps-rubella shots, or the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, led to children developing autism. This report from the Associated Press, carried on The New York Times website, explains that the court will hear nine test cases that represent almost 5,000 other vaccine damages claims across the country.

The report foreshadows what is to come in court over the coming months: families whose children have suffered greatly will present evidence that there could be a causal link between the vaccines and their children's condition. Lawyers for the government will argue that the causation theories lack scientific research or factual evidence to support them.

For more background on the vaccine court case, and information about accessing available court records and proceedings, see this article. For The Washington Post's take on the case, see this article. And for a critique of The Post's article and some links to past research studies on the vaccine-autism issue, see this article at, the statistical fact-checkers at George Mason University.

More on the 'Epidemic' Debate

Just in time for the court case, The Times also today published an Op-Ed that seeks to debunk the idea that there's an autism epidemic. But while the authors outline a clear thesis, their argument is not new and it's not clear what the piece adds to any public policy debate.

In "A Spectrum of Disputes," by Paul T. Shattuck, an assistant professor at Washington University's School of Social Work, and Maureen Durkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, report that they have analyzed mountains of data, including school records in all 50 states. They have determined that because of relatively recent rules changes (schools started counting autism cases in 1991), and because school and medical records don't necessarily match, it's possible that the nation has become better at counting autism spectrum disorder cases -- and therefore one cannot say there's an epidemic.

Read the article online, for a limited time, by going to the Times site here.

After a long discourse on their research methods and findings, the author's conclude:

We want to be very clear: our results do not mean we have nothing to worry about. Scientific and clinical advances have improved our ability to identify autistic children and to differentiate their unique needs from those of children with other types of developmental disabilities. But schools and other social service systems are unable to keep pace with these changes or give the children the help they need.

Research to discover what causes autism, including possible environmental triggers, must be a top priority. However, autism is not purely a medical puzzle — as we invest in new ways of understanding autism, we have a corresponding responsibility to invest in the capacity of our schools, medical centers and social workers to provide up-to-date treatment for those with the condition and support services for their families. In the end, we should not have to deliver a verdict on whether there is an epidemic to fulfill these obligations.

If we don't have to deliver a verdict on whether there's an epidemic, why bother with this essay, why now? Because the public's attention is focused on the vaccine court case? (The op-ed writers say they fear that the court case will drag out a debate about whether we face an epidemic.)

Do parents and advocates need the label of an epidemic to win support for better treatment options? Does the country need to see that "e-word" to sense the urgency? The article doesn't suggest a thought about this, at least not explicitly.

For more on this subject, see:

Media Picks Up "Unstrange Minds" as Hook to Debunk Cries of "Autism Epidemic"

Good Showing for Autism Documentary

"Autism: The Musical" a documentary that showcases the lives of five autistic children and their families in Los Angeles, took home an audience award at last weekend's Newport Film Festival. That's according to the director, Tricia Regan.

Regan also said in an e-mail message that HBO had agreed to televise the documentary in April 2008.

Read more about the film here.


Anonymous said...

when people tell me that autism is just being diagnosed more often
i ask, where are the adults who were not treated?
the news also repeats the fiction that vaccines were free of mercury after 2001 when in fact the drug companies stopped making them but used up shelf stock instead of recalling them.
the issue should not be if it is an epidemic it should be what to do with the children with autism.

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in this case. The idea that we weren't warned about the dangers of thimerasol when we signed off on our kids vaccinations appalls me. Flu vaccines still contain thimerasol. As for fewer adults with autism, they had many many fewer vaccines then, hence much less mercury. There was never a good reason to put mercury in the shots except to save money.
I'm worried about the fear in the corporate world that this would start an "epidemic" of lawsuits, (which it probably would), and preventing an appropriate outcome based solely on that. Personally, I believe that thimerasol is a contributor to autism in many cases, not necessarily a sole cause.

Anonymous said...

I read the Times op-ed on the epidemic question and thought it did one of the best jobs I've seen anywhere explaining clearly why the rise in autism cases may very well be due to the broadening of diagnostic criteria, better counting by school districts, etc. But I was so disappointed the authors left the most crucial point for the final paragraph, thereby missing the chance to raise public awareness: "...we should not have to deliver a verdict on whether there is an epidemic to fulfill these obligations [to meet the needs of children with autism]." Amen to that!